Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


In Memoriam: Alfred F. Young

I worked closely with Al during his last major project, and I’d like to share some thoughts about that experience.

About six years ago, Al approached me with an idea: since people love to digest history in the form of biography, shouldn’t there be a book featuring biographical essays of radicals of the Revolutionary Era?

Good idea, I responded. Then I continued to pump him with questions for my own work-in-progress.

A few weeks later, he mentioned his idea again, then again and again for perhaps a year, until he finally asked outright if I would be interested in working with him on such a project. I had been blind, I realized; he had been asking me all along, but I hadn’t taken his hints. At a younger age, he would have charged into this on his own, but now he sought company.

I had two books in the works, but I could hardly say no. Gary Nash signed on as well, and for three years or so, the three of us tried to fulfill Al’s vision. While Revolutionary Founders was a collaborative effort, Al was indeed the motive force.

Al was my teacher years before he knew I existed. When I started studying people’s history of the American Revolution in the mid-90s, I gleaned onto the classic collection of essays he had published in 1976 that gave the field definition, and I used the long historiographic essay he had just published as my starting roadmap. I didn’t yet know him when he blurbed my first American Revolution book, The People’s History of the American Revolution, but after that I introduced myself by email and phone, and from that moment onward, he was my constant advisor. Whenever I had any question, I turned to Al first, and he would rattle off, from the top of his head, a readings list I should pursue and angles I should consider.

So now I would be working side-by-side with a mentor! It was a thrilling prospect, but Al proved to be a tough taskmaster. Email followed email, five or six per day at times, and in the course of the project, a thousand at least. He was direct and spoke his mind, relentless and demanding in his pursuit of historical truth, but he could be curt. Intermittently we quibbled over this or that. At one low ebb, when the tone seemed to turn a bit sour, I headed East with a mission: to meet Al in person. Never have I lived with someone so long and so intensely without meeting him first.

Durham, North Carolina, the fall of 2009: Al and I hit it off famously, working together for three solid days, tidying up this essay and that, jamming on the intro, talking shop—truly collaborating, a rewarding process professionally and so satisfying on a personal level. Through work was how Al related most deeply, as musicians do with their music. I was face-to-face with a dedicated, highly effective, rigorous historian and a truly wonderful man; these went hand-in-hand. That visit was a gift; especially now, I am thankful for it. In point of fact, who among us does not owe Al great thanks? He defined who we are, collectively and to some extent individually.

Al was a true scholar, open to fully honest discussion. Once, on the phone, I confessed that in two footnotes to People’s History, I had takenhim to task on points in his Hewes essay [WMQ 1981]. Had he noticed these? “Of course,” he responded. “That’s what most attracted me to you. You took me seriously.”

And he took me seriously, critiquing my work as only a master can. In an early draft for Revolutionary Founders, I had presented a tolerably good essay on Timothy Bigelow, a radical leader from Worcester who happened to be a blacksmith. Not strong enough, Al argued. Here is the gist of one email:

“You need to bring out the blacksmith thing, that is crucial. Of all the artisans, a blacksmith is the one most essential to farmers and townspeople. They need him to shoe their oxen and horses, to mend their tools. A blacksmith was a craftsman you could evaluate, whether he was a good worker and a good man. A miller might be comparable, but farmers would bring him their grains only at infrequent intervals. You would visit a blacksmith often, hear what he had to say. He could earn your respect.”

Further, might a blacksmith have a particular reason not only to join but also to lead the resistance movement? Exploring this conjecture, Al continued: “Would British iron policies have been a felt grievance? The Iron Act of 1750 prohibited colonists from establishing new slitting mills—is that the same as a forge? The importation of raw iron from the colonies was encouraged but to little effect.” He then produced a long quotation from Merrill Jensen on British iron policies, fully cited, followed by a question: “Do you have any other evidence? My guess is the average blacksmith had all he could do managing the demands of local farmers. The boycott movement was accompanied by a buy American movement, big in Mass. with a long list of products colonists were encouraged to buy from American manufacturers. That had a positive appeal for artisans, so any restriction would be more than just a felt grievance. A distinction. Whether you can say this for Bigelow, I don’t know.”

That’s Al for you, probing deeply and ever at work. I mourn him and miss him.

Ray Raphael, Independent Scholar